Book Look: Quiet, by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is a recent book by introvert and professional negotiator Susan Cain. The essential message is simple: Western (particularly American) culture prizes extroversion, but introverts make up one-third to one-half of the population, and their contributions are just as important.

Cain starts out by explaining some basic personality theory and exploring the roles of introverts and extroverts in society. During the past century, she states, the “mighty likeable fellow” has emerged as the American ideal, particularly in the business world. At the same time, collaborative group work and open office plans have become the status quo in many work environments, despite evidence that they may not actually improve productivity. Introverts in particular often work best in quiet solitude – although, as Cain emphasizes, introversion is not the same thing as unsociability. Introverts love socializing just as much as any human does, but we gravitate towards different situations. Often, we might avoid a crowd in favor of an evening with a few close friends.

In the next section, Cain explores the psychology and biology behind introversion. Some research indicates that introverts may be more sensitive to external stimuli, even as very young children. In one study, researcher Jerome Kagan exposed four-month-old babies to stimuli like loud noises, bright colors, and strong smells, and observed their reactions. He then tracked these children as they grew up. The children who reacted more strongly to the stimuli (exhibiting behaviors like crying or getting upset) tended to grow into quieter, more introverted teenagers. On the other hand, children who were unfazed by stimuli tended to develop extroverted personalities when they grew older. These findings suggest a “sensitivity” model to explain introversion/extroversion: introverts are easily overwhelmed by too many stimuli, but less likely to get bored or restless in a quiet environment. Thus, a highly sensitive, introverted person is uncomfortable at a loud party, but perfectly content to curl up with a book at home, while a highly extroverted person grows restless sitting alone at home, and craves the stimulation of a loud party.

This isn’t the only model of introversion/extroversion that Cain explores. Genes, among other factors, play a role in personality. Cain argues that culture and upbringing are particularly influential in introversion and extroversion, particularly on a societal scale. Many Asian cultures, for instance, place a comparatively higher value on quiet, introspection, and caution – that is, introverted traits. Cain contrasted this to the United States and other Western cultures, which she believes overemphasize the gregarious, enthusiastic extrovert ideal at the expense of recognizing the value of introverts.

Occasionally, Cain seems uncomfortably close to arguing that introverts are not only equal, but superior to extroverts. Introverts, we are told, tend to have greater powers of single-minded concentration, more sensitivity to detail, better impulse control, and more persistence. Borrowing a metaphor from science writer David Dobbs, Cain compares introverts to orchids. As Cain describes it, we introverts are delicate and “wilt easily,” but bloom with extraordinary beauty in the right conditions. Extroverts, on the other hand, are dandelions – hardier, but less exceptional. To be fair, Cain is explicit that introverts and extroverts are equally intelligent and have equal value, so perhaps her apparent favoring of introversion over extroversion is a reaction against a culture that tends to value the opposite.

Similarly, Cain recognizes that introverts come in all shapes and colors, but she spends an inordinate amount of time discussing a few select traits. For example, shyness is a stereotypical introvert trait, but nowhere near universal in reality; it comes up again and again in the book. Personally, I would have liked to learn more about the psychology and biology of introversion, although the speculation on its societal merits and disadvantages is also interesting.

The final section of the book steers from psychology toward self-help. Quiet is definitely aimed at an introverted audience, although there are some nods toward extroverted readers, particularly those who have close relationships with introverts. How, Cain probes, can an introvert thrive in an extrovert’s world? Do introverts have to deny their personalities to achieve success? How can we encourage introverted children in a society where extroversion is the ideal? One strategy is the use of “free traits” – adopting aspects of a different persona when one’s own personality traits are insufficient. For instance, Cain relates the story of an introverted professor who adopts an extroverted attitude in order to teach effectively. Incorporating extroverted “free traits” into one’s personality can be useful, but the effort is mentally exhausting. Nevertheless, Cain argues, it is sometimes worthwhile to act out of character for the sake of accomplishing a rewarding task.

I have mixed feelings about Quiet. I’m an introvert myself, but I was uncomfortable with the occasional implication that introversion is superior to extroversion. At the same time, I enjoyed the analysis of what introverted personalities can contribute in a society where people are expected to be outgoing. I like learning the science behind human behavior, and the psychology of introversion and personality theory is certainly interesting. Quiet has a few flaws, but I’m glad I read it. It got me thinking about the mistake of idealizing one default personality type when, in reality, it is our mixture of types and talents that helps us succeed.

Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.

What are your experiences regarding introversion and extroversion in society? Do you agree that Western culture idealizes extroverted personality traits? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Book Review: Carcharinus obscurus

I’ve written a couple of reviews of popular science books by celebrated science writers, but today I’m reviewing something a little different, and a little more … obscure.

Carcharinus obscurus is the first in a series of books by Zachary Webb Nicholls, also known as “Dr. Jaws,” who is an author, artist, and student at my alma mater, the College of William and Mary. Dr. Jaws plans to focus on a different species of shark in each book in the series, starting with the Dusky Shark, Carcharinus obscurus. Why the Dusky Shark? In an interview, Dr. Jaws said that this species deserves particular attention because “it’s not doing so well, conservation-wise.”

This book is, in a word, unique. It blends art, science, and mythology into a slightly surreal celebration of the Dusky Shark. Dr. Jaws incorporates the shark as an animal and as a cultural icon, but unlike many popular science books, Carcharinus obscurus doesn’t really have an encompassing narrative or message (other than, perhaps, “sharks are amazing, and you should learn more about them.”) The structure of the book could be summed up in a quote from Dr. Jaws: “One day, I started a poem and liked it, and went from there.” In my opinion, it doesn’t need a strict narrative.

Carcharinus obscurus is a very quick read. It weighs in at less than 50 pages, of which pictures and poetry take up a large chunk. The first half of the book drifts from poetry extolling the wonders of Domain Eukarya to drawings and photographs of sharks, inserting keyword ciphers and shark-related factoids along the way. My favorite section of the book is the last one. In the final 20 pages, Dr. Jaws uses a story about a leatherback and a shark-goddess to convey a sense of wonder and reverence toward sharks.

I wanted to create something distinct, something that stands out and grabs attention, because sharks are just so charismatic, and so many people have done something on them… To me, sharks are like living poetry. I naturally have just a strange sense of awe for them. – Dr. Jaws, in an interview

If you are interested in marine life and are searching for something low-key and a little different to peruse, take a look at Carcharinus obscurus.

I drew a picture based on "Sea of Sauda," the final story in Carcharinus obscurus. I liked the mood of the story, and wanted to draw my own take on it.

I drew a picture based on “Sea of Sauda,” the final story in Carcharinus obscurus. I liked the mood of the story, and wanted to draw my own take on it.


Links:
Dr. Jaws’ Facebook Page
Author’s Page at Deep Sea Publishing
Book Trailer on YouTube
Carcharinus obscurus is available for purchase at Amazon.com.

Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

I recently read a book titled The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by renowned physicist and science writer Carl Sagan. It’s about aliens and witches, science and society – and it’s probably one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read recently.

Sagan starts off by exploring why people hold unorthodox beliefs. Unusually for a book on science, The Demon-Haunted World does not treat investigations into things like alien abductions as unworthy of skeptical investigation, or beneath the notice of a “serious” scientist. Instead, Sagan devotes a great deal of effort to examining evidence of aliens, as well as other possible explanations for supposed alien sightings and abduction experiences. He then draws a comparison between modern belief in aliens and medieval European belief in witches and demons. They share certain external features (tales of terror and abductions in the night), but also, both are phenomena that exploded in the public consciousness, despite being rooted in evidence that crumbles upon closer inspection. Sagan does eventually conclude that stories of alien abductions – like demons – are better explained by more mundane causes, but he comes to this conclusion through careful, reasoned investigation. In other words, he uses scientific thinking.

The Demon-Haunted World is a more than a book on witch hunts and aliens; Sagan merely uses these as jumping-off points for exploring the role of science in society. Touching on topics ranging from the ethics of the hydrogen bomb to the importance of education, Sagan discusses what science and skeptical thinking truly are. What do they mean to people? How should we use them? And how do they affect our lives?

[S]cience – or rather its delicate mix of openness and skepticism, and its encouragement of diversity and debate – is a prerequisite for continuing the delicate experiment of freedom in an industrial and highly technological society. -pg. 431

Scientific thinking, Sagan argues, is essential to democracy. Unquestioning acceptance of a simple explanation, coupled with lack of critical thinking, can lead to false beliefs and irrational decisions, whether they be medieval witch hunts, modern beliefs in alien abductions, or bad public policy choices. We live in a political system where the people control their own governance; therefore, Sagan argues, we have a responsibility to understand the world we operate within, and to think critically about our actions, our policies, and our decisions. As he says in the final chapter, “real patriots ask questions.”

The subject matter can be serious at times, but the book keeps a lively tone. Sagan’s sense of wonder at science is infectious. The Demon-Haunted World is suffused with a feeling of awe at the world, passion for our own powers of discovery, and hope for the role science can play in our society.

Go read this book, if you haven’t already. It’s a good one.

Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House, 1995.

Book Look: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

Last year, Oliver Sacks, prolific writer of weird tales about the brain and perception, brought us a new book on hallucinations. I’ve only read one of Sacks’ books before, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – a sampling platter of strange brain-related case studies– so when I picked up Hallucinations, I suppose I was expecting something similar. However, if The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is like a collection of neurological short stories, then Hallucinations is a positive encyclopedia (albeit a short one, with plenty of personal touches). In his introduction, Sacks calls his book a “natural history or anthology of hallucinations,” which pretty much sums it up.

Sacks takes his readers through a museum’s worth of hallucinatory experiences and personal descriptions written by people who experienced them, including one memorable chapter focusing on his own extensive dabbling in hallucinogenic drugs. The book is an interesting blend of the scientific and the personal, with a thread of social science running throughout. Underlying the descriptions of hallucinations and misperceptions – and the sheer number and variety of hallucinations catalogued in this book were enough to hold my interest – there is a somewhat surprising message. Sacks demonstrates that hallucinations and misperceptions, far from being rare and exceptional harbingers of madness, are actually quite common quirks of the brain. Take Charles Bonnet Syndrome, for example – as Sacks describes in the opening chapter, simple visual or auditory hallucinations are very widespread among completely sane individuals who have undergone loss of vision or hearing, as if the brain is compensating for a lack of sensory input by creating its own original material.

There is another, closely related theme threading through the book, uniting the often-meandering narrative. Hallucinations, Sacks argues, may play a much more significant role in human cultures and mythology than we realize. Hallucinogenic substances hold an important place in many cultures, and hallucinations are not as rare as most people think. Could stories of monsters, elves, aliens, and mystical beings originate from the actual experiences of people who didn’t realize it was “all in their head?” I was intrigued by the hints at this possibility, and I would have liked for Sacks to explore the cultural value of hallucinations – so heavily stigmatized in modern America – in more detail.

What did I think of the book overall? I liked it, though naturally, as a science lover, I would have enjoyed more detail into the neurological hows and whys behind the intriguing hallucinations he describes. The book suffers from some repetition (Sacks does touch on the subject of déjà vu a couple of times…) and the narrative ambles along without a strong directional flow. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however; I think the purpose of the book is to take the reader on a journey into the bizarre world of hallucinations in all their variety and strangeness, and that Mr. Sacks accomplishes very well indeed.

I would recommend Oliver Sacks’ books to anyone interested in an engaging glimpse into how the mind works – and what strange things can happen when brain function goes awry.

Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.